Years from now, this summer will be remembered as “The Summer of Ferguson.” Certainly, many will never forget the disturbing images of the past few weeks: The body of Michael Brown sprawled in the street; the video of Eric Garner being grappled and choked to death by police; the video of Kaijieme Powell being shot to death by St. Louis police. The police in combat gear with aimed M4 Carbines and riding MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles), lobbing LRADs and tear gas canisters into mostly black crowds.
Of course, the interpretation of these events depends upon the context in which one views them.
In a tiresome déjà vu, there has been the usual calls for further dialogue about race, so numerous that the Daily Show did a send-up montage of such mouthings. But this dialogue has been present from the time the Puritans arrived on this continent as Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy, and Langston’s Hughes’ poem, provide witness to:
I am the American heartbreak—Much of this dialogue, though, has always been one sided. And so, in 2014, we are still dealing with the problems of race because no true dialogue can take place if one side is not actually listening to the other side.
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe—
The great mistake
That Jamestown made
I’m a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American. My family came to this dialogue comparatively late, when my grandparents immigrated to this country around 1905. But with the yellow peril ideology that greeted their arrival, with the anti-Asian exclusion laws of 1924, and the imprisonment of my parents’ families during World War II, we too have been part of that history our nation is still trying to acknowledge and bear witness to. In my own portion, my parents, after being imprisoned for their race and ethnicity, tried both consciously and unconsciously to raise me to assimilate into white middle-class America. As a result I grew up hating both my ethnicity and my race. And when, in high school, my friends would say, “I think of you David like a white person,” I would think, “Yes, that’s what I want to be. That means I’m normal, accepted. I am not a foreigner; I really do belong here.”
It wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized the delusion of such thinking. I was not white. I was a third generation Japanese American. But what did that mean? What was my identity? Where did I fit in this dialogue of race that was such a part of our family history, a history my parents, bearing the shame and ignominy of the internment, never spoke to me about?
At the time, I’d spent five years in English graduate school. But I had read almost no works by black writers or writers of color. And so, I began to read black writers and thinkers, and I found in them both a language to speak about my own racial identity and history and a corollary to my own experiences of race and that of my family. Writers like Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton; later scholars like Dubois, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks and Cornell West, and more recently social scientists like Michelle Alexander—all of these helped me understand the other side of the dialogue that my twenty-one years of formal education had not provided me. Without that tradition of black and African American writers, I would never have become the writer I am today, nor would I have probably gone to Japan and wrote my memoir, Turning Japanese, about my own search for my cultural, racial and historical identity.
Why do we need the humanities? Because without the humanities, and without the specific tradition of African American writers and thinkers, it is nearly impossible for most Americans, particularly white Americans, to even begin to make sense of this summer of Ferguson, a summer which has called up images of Jim Crow, civil rights marches, and the “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about many decades ago. As James Baldwin, far more relevant today than many of his white contemporaries, put it: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”